Native American Language Characteristics

Published on August 13, 2014 by Amy

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Native American Population in 2010
Native American Population in 2010

Native American tribes throughout North America have a rich history of culture, traditions and language. Scholars of Native American languages have found aspects which have similarities to language families in Europe, Asia and Africa, but they also have distinctive characteristics that separate them from other world languages.

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Many different peoples fall under the category of “Native American;” it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of cultures and languages. Tribes that lived in close proximity were often not likely to understand one another. Native American languages have aspects that can be compared to many different languages; for example, some languages have nasal vowels similar to the French, while others have rising and falling tones similar to Chinese. Different Native American languages also have diversity in the number of sounds they use; Greenland Eskimos use a combination of 17 phonemes, or units of sound, to form words, while the Navajos have 47 phonemes.


Some Native American peoples have lost their original languages. This loss is due partly to assimilation of Native Americans into modern American culture; they move away from their traditions and languages as they adopt American culture. This loss is also due to relocation of Native American tribes; as tribes were moved to reservations in new locations, their languages changed and, in some cases, adapted to allow them to converse with other tribes. Although there are efforts to revitalize Native American languages, many people of Native American descent don’t learn the original languages of their tribes.


Polysynthesism is a widespread characteristic in Native American languages. Polysynthetic languages join word elements to express what would be a phrase or sentence in Indo-European speech; that is, a complete thought can be expressed using one long word unit. In these languages, there’s no clear distinction between words and sentences; instead, the language focuses on expressing thoughts rather than using grammatical constructions.

Language Families

Native American languages show similarities in certain regions of North America,.similar to the way American English dialects and phrases emerge from specific regions (like the way the American word for flavored, carbonated beverages may be “pop,” “soda” or “cola” depending on where you are). As such similarities can also be observed in Native American languages, scholars have grouped Native American languages into language families. According to Indiana University’s Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition, there are nine significant language families in North America.

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